I’m participating in a book and reading oriented discussion challenge hosted by Nicole @ Fed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ Starts at Midnight.
WHEN BOOKS BECOME MOVIES OR TV SHOWS
Topic of 18th March
Having enjoyed so many good movie adaptations in my formative years, my first thought when I hear a book will be filmed is “This will be a great movie.” It sounds crazy, I know, especially since Hollywood has started the whole franchise thing with very mixed results, but that is my first reaction. Unless we are talking about a particular favourite of mine; then it’s all “They are going to RUIN it!” *cue tears*
Why such a mixed up response?
The first problem lies in the difference of format. Books with personal narration and complex inner lives of the protagonist just don’t work well in movie format. Voiceovers are almost universally hated by viewers; we want to learn about protagonists and other characters from their interactions, not listen to monologues or have action all over the place. Wild was a mixed bag movie for me precisely because it relied heavily on voiceovers and jumps in timeline – flashbacks to the events that prompted our protagonists to walk the Pacific trail. This works great in literature, but not so well in movies. Flashbacks must be limited or the audience gets antsy or doesn’t connect with the character at all.
Some directors and screenwriters manage to translate such books into compelling, often times very lyrical movies. It depends on how much the book itself utilises flashbacks and inner dialogue. A great example of a successful adaptation would be the series Outlander – a few voiceover sentences at the start of each episode set the tone without being intrusive. So adapting such books can be done, but with careful handling. Generally though, books where the protagonist agonizes and broods more than acts turn into tortuously boring movies. I’m sorry, but I can’t stand it when characters have very little to say.
The next stumbling block is the amount of source material. A very long novel with many side-plots and twists can become unmanageable and convoluted in movie format. Cue franchise movies where the story is chopped into individual movies, often the preferred method to adapt book series. We either hate or love the wait for the next movie and the way this impacts the overall structure of the story (we all know about the dreaded middle book syndrome). A show is a better option when adapting long novels, but producers don’t always go for it, unfortunately.
Movie time constraints are a serious problem with any lengthy book. Important elements of the plot are sacrificed, merged, transformed, or pushed further up the timeline in order to streamline the flow of the story. Some hate this, but again nuance is the key – fans can forgive almost anything if the change makes sense and does not impact the overall story. Sometimes a little tweak here and there makes the story more dynamic or just more comprehensible with easier seen parallels and results. A show is different – it might deviate from the books entirely the longer it is on air since producers tend to follow their viewers’ taste. A series adaptation that is complete might be more faithful.
The next problem is a huge cast of characters; be prepared for sudden disappearances and mutations, strange characterization, or characters utilising unknown teleportation powers to be in two places at once (travel distances are a fact of life and sometimes the errors are glaringly obvious – shit happens). Now, it is unreasonable to expect a movie or series to feature every servant ever mentioned, but when we are talking historical persons or important minor characters, we hope directors don’t go overboard with the pruning shears. (Tudors and Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you.) A decision to leave out characters or to merge them is a balancing act and the change must not be jarring or nonsensical to the viewer.
A fascinating character can also be emphasized and given a bigger role – it depends on the director and his vision of the story they are adapting. It might work (in the case of Effie from Hunger Games) or not. Coraline is one of those adaptations where it doesn’t. In the book she saves herself, but in the movie version she has a boy help her escape the Other Mother. This changes the message completely and I don’t like that at all.
A character’s change of race or sex is one of the most frequent character transformations lately – often done in the name of affirmative action. I’m usually not bothered by it if the characterization is still spot on, or when I’m not a huge a fan of the novel to expect a faithful adaptation. Hannibal series made several changes like this, as well as Jessica Jones. (The female-heavy cast of Jessica Jones felt just as wonky as a male-heavy cast to me, so I’m dubious about the validity of such an experiment. A 60-40% ratio of either sex is fine although a 50-50% would be ideal. It depends on the setting and story, but it felt just weird in the Netflix series.)
Most often than not, heavy deviation from the source material creates a new story universe that readers regard as distinctly separate from the book. I’m not sure this is what any book lover wants. The Maze Runner series is one of those adaptations where deviation has gone so far that the two versions are just tentatively connected now. I can live with movies inspired by a book, but they should not be promoted as adaptations because then I demand a greater amount of faithfulness. Case in point – World War Z. It is loosely inspired by the book, not based on the book. Imdb clearly tells us in FAQ: “except for the zombies (and the movie changed even them, making them fast rather than slow and shambling like the book), there is little that the book and movie have in common.” Even this is generous – all they took was the title of the movie and zombies.
The next thing adaptations have to be mindful of are the time period and place the story is set in. Historical fiction and classics demand costumes and settings that fit the period or there will be a lot of nitpicking among the netizens. (A change in time period might work for Shakespearean dramas since it is the dynamics between characters that we enjoy and not so much the time period they are set in, but speaking in rhyme might distract to the point it becomes unwatchable. It depends on personal taste.)
If the costume department does a shitty job, the overall movie will suffer. The opposite can be true as well – a great emphasis on good costumes and setting can elevate the overall story and make it more vivid. It also adds a new dimension to the story’s message, a subtler reading of the text – sometimes the differences in clothes emphasise differences in class that may escape the reader. I personally enjoy period dramas so I’m always on the lookout for book adaptations of classics. They help the ‘name challenged’ like me to remember characters with their full names.
We are far more likely to watch a show than to read the book that is part of required reading. So adaptations are definitely a plus, with a caveat that you should always research how much the adaptation changed in the plot or characterization. It might save you some trouble or give you a little extra to discuss in your essay. 😀
Do some genres lead to easier adaptation? Yes. Sometimes sci-fi books work really well as movies because they utilise people’s imagination to the fullest degree and create something amazing. Books that might not push boundaries in terms of plot can turn into important milestones in the film industry by promoting the use of new technologies. But generally it is contemporary books and graphic novels that do really well as movies.
Some of my favourite movie/show adaptations:
(This trip down the memory lane is the reason why the post is late – sorry, but I couldn’t help myself and ended up surfing the net for lists of adaptations people loved or hated, writing down a long list of adaptations I have to see and review in the future. :D)
- LOTR trilogy 2001-03
- The Hunger Games 2012-15
- To Kill a Mockingbird 1962
- Life of Pi 2012
- Sense and Sensibility 1995, 2008
- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 2009
- The Color Purple 1985
- Outlander 2015
- Daredevil 2015
- Bleak House 2008
- Pride and Prejudice 1995
- Persuasion 1995, 2007
- North and South 2004
- Tess of D’Urbervilles 2008